You are stronger as an individual when you stand with othersNisreen Haj Ahmed works to give vulnerable people in Jordan a voice and a community to belong to.
When Nisreen Haj Ahmed was just two years old, her life took a significant turn. Her father was forced out of their home and into the neighbouring country Lebanon, and her life has been shaped by the fact that she was a child of a family in exile ever since.
For those first two years, however, Nisreen Haj Ahmed lived in Ramallah, Palestine, with her mother, four siblings and grandparents in a beautiful house with high ceilings and watermelons in the garden. For a long time they were convinced her father would return. Yet, when it became clear that he would not, Nisreen Haj Ahmad’s mother decided to reunite the family, now in Jordan, where her father had since moved to and found an apartment for them.
Their new home was more cramped than Nisreen Haj Ahmed was used to, but it was not so much everyday life that made it clear to her that life had changed. It was the trips back to Palestine each summer.
“The experiences on the Jordan-Palestine border have shaped me on a very essential level,” Nisreen Haj Ahmed said over a Zoom connection, sitting in her home in Amman. Like so many others around the world, she works from her home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Today Nisreen Haj Ahmed is the director of the organisation Ahel, which in English translates into community or family. Since 2011, Ahel has worked to bring people together who have not experienced having a voice, but who find one by organizing themselves into larger groups with a common goal of ensuring justice and the fulfilment of their human rights.
Ahel and KVINFO
From the beginning of 2020, the Jordanian organization Ahel is cooperating with KVINFO.
The project focuses on vulnerable community groups and on strengthening the participants’ thoughts and ideas about taking part in society and standing up for their rights.
KVINFO and Ahel focus on norms of masculinity among the participants, empowering young people, women and organisations. As part of this work, we are exploring if GenderLAB, a tool for challenging existing gender norms developed by Copenhagen Business School and KVINFO, can be adapted and used. You can read more about GenderLAB by following this link – the link leads to a Danish site.
Since the beginning of 2020, Ahel has been cooperating with KVINFO with funding from the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Danish-Arab Partnership Program under the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The journey home to Palestine
To understand why it is important for Nisreen Haj Ahmad to give voice to those who do not have one, she takes us back to her childhood and the border between Palestine and Jordan.
On the day of travel, the family would get up at five in the morning to be in the front of the queue when the border opened at eight, but they were far from the only ones who had that plan. Every year, people stood in line with crying children on their arms and packed lunches with boiled eggs.
Israeli and Jordanian guards stood in line on both sides of them. When Nisreen Haj Ahmad’s family finally reached the border, they had to go through a security check where they were asked to step into small booths with fabric curtains and undress.
“My mother had to take off her clothes in front of the guards. In our culture and family, it is extremely humiliating,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.
Afterwards, the guards gathered all the travellers in the middle of the King Hussein Bridge, which forms the border between Jordan and Israel. Everyone had to take off their shoes and put them in a big box, without any explanation as to why. It was a tactic to humiliate the traveling Palestinians, Nisreen Haj Ahmad says.
When everyone had removed their shoes, the guards took the box away, while Nisreen Haj Ahmad, her family and all the others were told to stay seated. She remembers that the sun was burning, as it was mid-summer, and people’s bare toes smelled.
After some time, the guards came back with the shoes and threw them in a big pile, which made everyone throw themselves over the pile to find both of their shoes to get going.
“People behaved like hungry animals chasing prey. There were always some who did not find both shoes and who had to go on with only one or even none. That experience was so degrading and robbed us of all honour,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmed.
The experience from the King Hussein bridge laid the foundation for the rest of Nisreen Haj Ahmed’s life. She studied law to work for the rights of the people, and when the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Front, PLO, was signed in 1993, she and her family returned to Palestine. Her father had lived in political exile until then. With the new agreement, the trip back home was different. People cheered on the bus, at the border there were no guards or security checks.
“It was a very positive time. We all believed that peace would come now. Now we would get our country back. That prosperity and peace would come to Palestine,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.
In the following years, she worked as a legal negotiator on the Palestinians’ side of the table in relation to how the peace agreement should be implemented in practice. Every day, she did everything to develop the best arguments and find the best people to make alliances with, and she believed that if she stuck to facts and acted diplomatically, then they would find a good solution.
However, one day, Nisreen Haj Ahmed’s grandmother took her to a window in their house and pointed to a hill on the horizon. Her grandmother said that a few years ago the Israeli settlers were at the top of the hill. Now they almost reached the family’s backyard.
“I only then realised what everyone else already knew: there were in fact no negotiations in progress, and no matter how many arguments I brought to the table, no one listened, and I couldn’t change it. Palestine was not becoming independent and peace was not on its way,” she says.
At the time, Nisreen Haj Ahmed had no idea what to do with herself. Her chance for relief came as an opportunity to leave Palestine for a year and go to Boston in the United States, where she was accepted into a Master programme at the Harvard Kennedy School. She thought yes.
Rediscovering a purpose
With her four-year-old son under her arm, Nisreen Haj Ahmed travelled to the United States. For a while, she left Palestine, her now ex-husband, and a life where death and survival were part of everyday life, behind.
“The year in the US became a sort of salvation to me. As a kind of a much, much needed vacation. Here, the only thing I had to worry about when I put my head on the pillow in the evening was how to write my school assignments before the deadline,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmad.
At the university, she took the subjects: public narrative and organizing, where she met a professor named Marshall Ganz, who was first her teacher, then a mentor and today a sparring partner. In the class on public narrative, Ganz urged the students to take point of departure in themselves and initially answer the question, “Why do I care?”
That question made Nisreen Haj Ahmad think, “who are my fellows, who is on my team?” instead of thinking, “what’s the problem?” and “who’s going to fix it?” The questions reminded her of her previous work at the negotiating table after the Oslo Accords in 1995.
With the new insights from the Harvard Kennedy School, it became clear to her that the Palestinians had positioned themselves as dependent on a negotiator and did not see themselves as able to pursue their goals and dreams independently.
“It struck me that there is a tendency among those who suffer the most to believe that there is someone else who will represent and defend them on their behalf. You cannot count on that. You have to fight your own fight,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmed.
With that starting point, she travelled back to Jordan, where she founded the organization Ahel with her colleague Mais Irqsusi. Their goal was clear. They would empower people to make independent choices and fight for their rights as a community. In other words, Ahel’s philosophy is that you are stronger as an individual when you stand with others and take ownership of the situation: when you organise around a common cause.
“At Ahel, all employees have something in them that makes them fight the oppressed cause. Those who are deprived of their honour and freedom. My own experiences have made me not only see the world through rights, legislation and conventions, but also through people’s strength and ability to take ownership of their own lives if given the opportunity and methods to do so,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmed.
Over the past nine years, Ahel has grown to 12 employees, who have trained more than 30 local coaches, who in turn have conducted 20 campaigns in Jordan as well as in other Arab countries, particularly Lebanon and Palestine.
For the campaigns, Ahel gathers people from the local level around a common cause. For example, they did this with a Stand Up with the Teachers campaign in 2015 to level up the position of female teachers at private schools. This was a group within Jordanian society who were being paid below the minimum wage and being forced to resign before the summer holidays by the private schools they worked for to not get pay for vacation, adding to this, they got fired when they became pregnant.
Ahel supported teachers to organize with the common goal of raising their pay and improving their contracts. Together, their voice eventually became so loud that the then Minister of Education, Omar Razzaz, introduced new rules requiring all private schools to submit transparent bank statements showing that the teachers have been paid at least the minimum wage for 12 months. Those that failed to comply would not get their accreditation renewed.
To Nisreen Haj Ahmad, an example like this proves that what she learned at the Harvard Kennedy School is a method that works in real life. This was also the case with another campaign, where a group of young people managed to raise their voices together. They had all been victims of sexual abuse, but in a joint campaign, they turned the pain they carried into motivation for hopeful action to speak up against sexual harassment and protect children now.
“When others dare to share their stories, whether it is about being fired, underpaid or exploited, I feel that people become stronger. They go from being in victim positions to becoming independent humans who suddenly have a voice to secure rights and break taboos,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmed.
“It makes me proud and humble. And it gives me a feeling that I’m not wasting my life.”
New chapter with KVINFO
The collaboration between Ahel and KVINFO is not a campaign but rather a project that works with the participants’ thoughts and ideas of not just being an ‘underdog’ but also having the power and strength to change their situation.
“It is important because in all of our campaigns – whether they are about sexual harassment, literacy, home security or even political change – the participants’ point of departure is that they have an understanding of power as something oppressive. That understanding must be turned upside down. The power is theirs to use,” says Nisreen Haj Ahmed.
You can read more about Ahel’s work by following this link to their website.